Monday, January 28, 2013

E.D. Hirsch and the power of vocabulary

E.D. Hirsch continues to earn his role as my own personal bête noir in his latest article about vocabulary acquisition.

In it, Hirsch continues to sound the clarion call of his own desperate anxieties regarding anything which strays from the most basic, banking-method of education (read: anything that can't be packaged into books that can be sold to overbearing parents at a healthy profit). So dedicated is Hirsch to the idea of rote learning and purely quantitative education that he actually singles out "Finding the main idea" as some abhorrent new-agey fad that "usurp[s] students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself."

Nope, no reflective thinking allowed.

So, mostly, I shake my head and chuckle at Hirsch's ongoing public airing of his own insecurities.

But this article caught my eye as it focuses on something that we can actually agree on: the importance of vocabulary acquisition as both a measure of and a tool for education.

Not surprisingly, I disagree with almost every point he makes about how to deal with the issue, but let's look to the problem itself first:

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

Let's grant the premise that vocabulary is a pretty accurate measure of content knowledge and is a great aid in further learning. Where Hirsch seems to go off the rails is in that last sentence: why should this be a language arts issue?

The answer of course is because if we make vocabulary acquisition our goal, then what is needed is a clearly sequenced curriculum whose purpose is to deliver important, content-specific vocabulary in such a way to work it into long-term memory.

However, if we reject the premise that vocabulary is the goal of education (as anyone who would like to ponder the question for half a moment will do), this methodology appears dreadfully wrong-headed. What needs to happen is that ongoing reading instruction should be embedded in the content area classrooms. Rather than teaching a three week science unit in English class to focus on vocabulary, students in science class should be reading and utilizing content-specific vocabulary in its appropriate context. This seems to me so obvious as to be almost not worth saying, but apparently I'm wrong. I am continually left to wonder if Hirsch's tortured logic is crassly intentional or sadly, desperately genuine.

What Hirsch continually fails to grasp is the reflexive nature between content and skills, knowing and thinking. In his throw-out-the-baby-the-the-bathwater reaction to progressive education, he's put himself in the unenviable position of disdaining critical thought itself.

Hirsch is clearly correct that there have been errors of methodology in American Education, and many of those errors are being remedied (albeit slowly). The idea that memorization by rote is an absolute evil is an idea that has had its day, but I would argue that it hasn't fallen into disrepute because of the failing of the middle class. Rather, it has fallen away because teachers and administrators have come to recognize that basic content knowledge, while far from the goal of any real education, is a necessary prerequisite to doing the work that makes up education.

Hirsch's praise of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is right on track, but he is willfully blind to the higher level thinking skills that are everywhere weaved into the CCSS (including an entire standard about identifying the main idea in an informational text), skills that require a firm grasp of content, vocabulary, etc., in order to ask students to do more with the content.

So, how do we fix the vocabulary gap? Hirsch proposes three solutions: "better preschools, run along the French lines; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool."

While the idea of highly academic preschools makes me queasy, it is the best of his three solutions as it focuses on what is most important: the early development of reading habits and relationships to language.

What do more economically well-off students receive that really makes the difference? They are much more likely to have been read to as babies, toddlers, and children. This is the result of a whole constellation of factors, not least of which being that poor parents tend to have significantly less time to spend, working multiple jobs to pay their bills. Add to that the cycle of poverty, and we have large percentages of students being raised by parents who do not even recognize that reading to children is something that is done.

Therefore, I would label this as an economic problem. But even in terms of a pedagogical approach to solving the problem, the idea of a uniform vocabulary acquisition program aimed at two year olds is ridiculous. What we need are children who are read to, who learn to experience and love text. I sincerely wish there was more room in Hirsch's thinking for the joy of reading and learning, and his preschool recommendation seems anathema to such joy.

If we want students to be better thinkers, better scholars, and better citizens, then they must have ample opportunity to think critically about a whole range of issues. It is impossible to do so without a certain level of knowledge, and an important part of that knowledge is vocabulary. When I teach parts of speech to my 7th graders (there's an example of "how-to" education gone wrong) I am always careful to emphasize that the purpose of working so hard to identify subjects and predicates is not that it will make them smarter people or even better writers, but so that we can all share a common vocabulary. That way, when I say, there's no subject, so that's a fragment, students understand what that means, and then we can work on making better sentences.

That thought process, which Hirsch sneers at, is becoming more prevalent, not less. Under the moniker of "Twenty-First Century Learning" we have a recognition that there is simply too much information, and that it changes too quickly. Therefore, we must focus on what is essential to help all students navigate a world that no longer has a use for Hirsch's canonical lists of cultural touchstones. Vocabulary will continue to be one of those essentials, as it allows us to manipulate ideas, attack complex problems, and work cooperatively with others, all of which make up the true essence of education.


  1. I love this post, and I have lots to say, but I'm going to pull my punches for the moment because I have an English 102 class that I want to unleash on this problem. Brace yourself.

  2. Are you giving them HIrsch's article? Can't wait.